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How Much Do We Leak? At Last, California Will Know

A new state law requires agencies to report water lost to leakage annually. There’s a lot more that needs doing to protect the water we already have.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
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As WaterDeeply notes on the front page of its website, California’s “severe drought” is now at 860 days and counting. Every Californian is feeling the ripples, whether in lawn watering bans, fallowed farmland or tap water limits at local restaurants. So when will the state’s water woes be over and these conversations become a thing of the past?

It’s wishful thinking to believe that El Niño — even the “Godzilla El Niño” many talk about — will make the state’s dire water shortages go away.

The warm, arid conditions that California has been experiencing the past few years are widely believed to be the “new normal” — the result of the state’s intrinsically dry climate and climate changing trends. A year or two of above-average rains triggered by warm Pacific Ocean temperatures won’t solve California’s profound water management challenges.

The key to California’s water future is investing in the water we already have and valuing every drop.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed an important measure — Senate Bill 555, backed by a half-dozen major California businesses — requiring urban water suppliers to file annual water loss audit reports. These validated audit reports will provide useful and actionable information for individual water suppliers and policymakers as they decide on water-saving investments in the future.

Water losses from leaky water distribution systems are a significant problem. A 2010 study done by the California Public Utilities Commission estimated that 10 percent of urban water — 870,000 acre-feet, enough to supply nearly 2 million families a year — is lost each year to leaks and that 40 percent of that water could be cost-effectively recovered through leak repairs, pressure management and targeted pipe replacement.

Approval of SB 555 is significant and signals smart thinking about managing California’s water— maximizing and investing in existing water sources. Yet it is only one piece of a large puzzle.

Whenever it rains in California, vast amounts of that water funnel directly into the Pacific Ocean rather than being captured and used. Millions of gallons of treated wastewater are also being discharged every day into the ocean. And groundwater contaminated from years of industrial pollution has made many California aquifers unusable.

Last year’s passage of a $7.5 billion water bond presents a great opportunity to fund critical infrastructure projects, such as stormwater capture, water recycling and groundwater cleanups. Unfortunately, $7.5 billion isn’t enough. A recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report shows that there is a $2 billion to $3 billion annual funding gap in five key water management areas, including stormwater, polluted runoff and integrated water management. Further, in an era of mandatory water conservation targets and declining per capita water use, the typical water agency revenue structure does not generate sufficient funding for infrastructure projects and maintenance needs.

No matter what El Niño brings, tackling these issues must be an urgent priority. State leaders should be fast-tracking policies, regulations and funding sources to accelerate widespread implementation and maintenance of projects that will make better use of existing water sources.

It won’t be cheap or easy, but in the end, these investments are key to California’s long-term water and economic future.

Top image: Water shoots in the air from a broken 30-inch water main under Sunset Boulevard, uphill from UCLA in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, Tuesday, July 29, 2014. This was one of the more catastrophic recent examples of undocumented water main leakage among California utilities.

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